Johnstown is noted primarily for the devastating flood that occurred there in 1889 that resulted in thousands of deaths and at the time was the greatest loss of life in a single disaster in American history. The Johnstown flood was also one of the first times that the newly formed American Red Cross responded to a natural disaster. Another flood in 1977 severely impacted the city's economic growth and steel industry.
On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River was breached after days of heavy rain, unleashing 20 million gallons of water into the city of Johnstown and surrounding communities. Over 2,000 people died in the flood, which caused the equivalent of $450 million in present-day dollars in damages. At the time, the flood was considered the worst natural disaster in U.S. history in terms of loss of life and property.
Clara Barton and the American Red Cross made Johnstown the first peacetime disaster to which the organization responded. She and a team of doctors and nurses arrived on the scene and helped provide medical care and shelter. The organization, originally formed to respond to areas impacted by wars, began to gradually shift its focus to responding to both natural and man-made disasters after the flood at Johnstown.
After a smaller flood in 1936, improvements to the dam above Johnstown helped bring years of steady population and economic growth based on the city being considered flood-proof. Another major flood in 1977 dispelled that notion. The city experienced a major and ongoing economic downturn as a result of the environmental impact studies and regulations that followed this flood, which resulted in the steel industry dramatically scaling down operations in the area.